*First published by Wear Your Voice Magazine, September 30, 2016.*
There’s no doubt that so much of our identity is wrapped up in our name.
Studies have shown how insidiously institutionalized racism and sexism appear when changing the gender or apparent race of a job applicant’s name. Economists have done studies on how people with African-American sounding names will be less likely to receive job offers than people with white-sounding names. In the Czech Republic, social science research has confirmed that people with Romany or Asian names will have a harder time getting an apartment viewing, let alone an actual rental. Education Weekly recently published the results of a study finding that regularly mispronouncing someone’s name will have long-term and negative psychological impacts on them.
Names — the thing by which people call and refer to us and set one of the foundations of our identity — are important.
The name on my birth certificate reads: Sezin Piotruszewicz Menekshe Rajandran. Just take a moment to let that sink in. And to make my already complicated biracial and transcultural Third Culture Kid identity (half American and half Sri Lankan) even more complex, my parents decided to call me by my third name, Menekshe, (pronounced Meh-NECK-sha) just to add constant mispronunciation and general beffudlement to the mix. Why did I have such a wordy name to begin with? My paternal grandfather died months before I was born, and my father wanted to give me his initials, S.P.M. Piotruszewicz is my mom’s maiden name, and Sezin Menekshe was a name recommended by a Turkish friend of my parents. Oy to the vey.
And so, I was called by Menekshe — which I despise — for the first 18 years of my life. To this day, I haven’t received a proper answer as to why my parents made that odd choice. Part of me wonders if they’ve forgotten, or if there ever even was a concrete reason. Oh, the years I spent wishing that I had been called Meenakshi instead, which is not only a badass goddess’s name, but is also pronounced phonetically. Oh, all the time I would have saved from having to spell out that clunky moniker Menekshe to people who would mispronounce it anyway. Oh, the humanity.
Changing Names, Changing Identities
Fast forward to August of 1997, and I was off to college in California. I decided to start going by the still-difficult but much more manageable Sezin (which rhymes with Selene). I always liked the name better, and let’s not forget Sezin is my actual first name. I saw an opportunity to make my own life easier and I took it.
Changing my name was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Sezin suits me better, and while there was a definitive shift in my self as I transitioned from one name to another, I was so much happier. Within a month of switching to Sezin, I already had half a dozen nicknames from my new college friends — Z, Zini, Sezini, Sez, Zed, S — an experience I’d never had in all those 18 years of being Menekshe. Yeah, you read that right. I never had a nickname growing up. Why? Because Menekshe WAS NOT MY REAL NAME. And I think people could subconsciously sense it.
The theoretical shift from Menekshe to Sezin came with a number of physical changes. I was no longer under my parents’ thumbs. With new personal freedom came the ability to control my appearance to suit my weird creativity. I bleached my buzzed hair and proceeded to dye it every color of the rainbow. I pierced my bellybutton, my tongue, my nose and my lip and started a love affair with tattoos that has persisted to this day. Pictures of Sezin and Menekshe show two very different people indeed.
Soon, I Became the Name Police
But then things started to get complicated. My world split into two camps: those who were able to adapt to and honor my decision to change my name — even if it was uncomfortable for them — and those who weren’t.
My family refused to acknowledge that I no longer went by Menekshe and continued to call me it. Introductions became awkward as they would introduce me or talk about me as that Other Name, forcing me into a new role of name police. Some of my high school and middle school friends as well had difficulty making the shift and I found people dropping out of my life because I suspected it was too much effort for them to adjust.
It became quickly tiresome for me to keep correcting them. It was amazing how many people treated me like my simple name change was an incredibly huge inconvenience to them. Why was I insisting on being so difficult? Why couldn’t I just make it easier for everyone (read: easier for them) and just go by both names?
By that point, going by Sezin had ceased being a choice. The name was me, it was who I was always supposed to be, and I had been derailed since birth. Now that I’d gotten back on the right track, why would I jump off just because a handful of people found it bothersome? Like Iceman’s mom says in X-Men 2: “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?” Yeah, tried it and hated it. Get over it already.
August 31, 2015, was the day for I’d waited for since the moment I decided to use my actual first name: The day I had finally been Sezin longer than Menekshe. As far as I’m concerned, now there’s absolutely no excuse to call me any other name.
Finding Common Ground
Obviously I’m not transgender, and there are far more complicated issues involved in the totality of a transgender experience. However, my experience of changing my name gave me a taste of what it’s like to have people refuse to adapt to one’s new identity.
Since I changed my name, I’ve come to understand what happens when you change what others should call you and your sense of self shifts into its authentic place — and also the resistance from less compassionate, less respectful and less considerate people. There is a daily frustration of policing your own self-presentation, and discomfort when dealing with people who refuse to acknowledge that you aren’t who they expected you to be or who they wanted you to be.
I didn’t even change my name to something that wasn’t on my birth certificate. For transgender people, it’s a horse of an entirely different color as they remake their identities.
But here’s the thing that people often get confused: You don’t need to agree with someone to respect them and their decisions. It’s this wonderful thing called compassion and empathy; you can disagree with someone’s choices and still treat them as a whole human being in spite of it. It’s being able to put your own judgments aside to understand that someone else is following a different path and, whether you like it or not, that path is valid and deserves acknowledgement even if it requires a little bit of extra work on your part.
Both the double-edged sword and silver lining of changing something major about your identity is that it will show you who respects you enough to make your decisions and who will support those decisions publicly. The people who care to recognize this “new” you — which isn’t actually new; it’s who you’ve always been — by referring to you with the appropriate language, those are your people. And you’ll be surprised and delighted by those who show up on your team, even as you’re sad for those who don’t, won’t, and tell themselves they can’t. You’ll realize who your happiness matters to and who it doesn’t. Even though it’s painful, you can begin the work of releasing those who would rather you stay in the box in which you were born and/or raised, even if it means you’ll live an unfulfilled life.
It makes me wonder whether all those who resist someone else’s identity change are secretly or subconsciously jealous or envious (because there is a difference). Maybe they don’t have the courage to go for something that they wanted. Maybe their lack of support comes from a place of thwarted dreams.
It also makes me wonder if those resistors are just plain assholes who are built like emotional iron rods, unable to bend or adapt.